Traveling through Alaska by human-power has been a lifelong obsession of mine. Last August, my partner Kim McNett and I rode our fat-bikes from Kotzebue to Point Hope. It’s silly to say but I can now draw a line of human-powered trips I’ve undertaken all the way from Kodiak to the summit of the state — Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow).
These trips last weeks or even months. They are often difficult experiences that sometimes cause us to ask why we do this to ourselves. When we return home, however, the memories of toil fade and we are left with a richer understanding of Alaska—how it’s connected by geography, waterways, culture, trails, and ancient trade routes, to name a few.
These days, when we are preparing for a long wilderness trip, we often imagine ahead of time what we might hope to learn about while we are underway. On our last trip, we knew, for instance, that seabirds along the Chukchi Sea coast were struggling from the effects of rapid global warming. We decided ahead of time that we’d photograph and GPS locate each dead bird we encountered. By the end of our 10-day 200-mile trip, we counted nearly 1,000 dead seabirds.
More importantly, however, when we take these trips, we try to be open to experiences. All the reading, research and studying of maps ahead of time can’t replace first-hand familiarity, and you never know what you might learn until you go.
During this last trip, Kim and I recorded video interviews of ourselves most days. Although the conditions for travel were remarkably good, the weather mostly cooperative, the people encountered generous, and scenery astounding, I couldn’t help but admit to feeling sadness to the camera one evening. “The Arctic seems sick,” I said.
Besides the dead seabirds and hearty evidence of rapid coastal erosion, our shoreline route was plagued with an alarming amount of marine debris — plastic. The three communities of the region — Kotzebue, Kivalina, and Point Hope — all contribute to this plastic, but the lion’s share of this non-biodegradable garbage had come from the rest of the world. Wind and ocean currents transport the buoyant rubbish. Korean, Russian, but mostly American plastic garbage littered the shore of this otherwise wild and very remote stretch of coast.
We know that nearly 50% of all seabirds accidently confuse plastic trash for food and that this human-produced garbage affects at least 270 marine species. It has been found that pollutants such as PCBs and DDT are absorbed into the plastic. These persistent bio-accumulative toxics are harmful to fish, mammals, birds and the humans who consume these species. Studies have found that humans have, on average, 20 particles of plastic within their digestive tract, ranging in size from 50 to 500 micrometers. (For comparison, a human hair is about 100 micrometers thick.
For those of us who live near the ocean and consume great quantities of fish, this amount is likely higher.
Homer residents will have an opportunity on Oct. 1 to ban single use plastic shopping bags. It’s fair to assume that if this ban goes into effect, there will still be a massive global plastic problem. However, I for one will be proud to live in a community that takes this step to help protect our oceans, our fisheries, our health and the health of far away landscapes that few ever see with their own eyes, like I have been charmed to witness.
Bjørn Olson is an Alaska adventurer, filmmaker and writer.